Album Review: The Used – Heartwork
If one thing about The Used’s eighth LP stands out above all others, it’s how thrillingly modern it sounds. Almost two decades since the emo mainstays exploded out of dusty Orem, Utah and onto the world stage, their key themes – love and loss, suffering and salvation – feel as timeless as always. Music, however, has moved on, with the boundaries separating rock, pop and dance music more porous than ever, and their most successful contemporaries in Fall Out Boy and Panic! At The Disco having endured not by digging-in but going with the flow.
Although 2017 double-album The Canyon boasted plenty of modernist flourishes, the return of uber producer John Feldmann for the first time since 2014’s Imaginary Enemy seems to have precipitated a more all-in approach. “I think music is so all over the place right now that The Used fits in perfectly,” frontman Bert McCracken explained. They are a band who thrive on risk taking and forward-thinking, and, at its best, Heartwork has The Used feeling just as relevant now as they did in 2004 with In Love And Death.
On lead single and album-opener Paradise Lost, A Poem By John Milton, that’s accomplished by giving Bert free rein to indulge his wordiest literary tendencies and revolutionary thoughts against a mischievous musical backdrop, rooted in the sounds of their heyday but reaching upward and outward. Second track Blow Me veers off wildly, though, bringing FEVER 333’s brilliant vocalist Jason Aalon Butler aboard for a murderously cathartic detour into serrated post-hardcore territory. BIG, WANNA BE, meanwhile, is a swaggering anthem with emphasis on the ‘pop’ in ‘pop-rock’ and its sights on the world’s stadia. ‘There’s no looking back now, no looking down,’ sings Bert. ‘I wanna be BIG!’ Quite.
And so we go across a sprawling 16-song tracklist. It’s an epic, overflowing with ideas and fresh influence and – for the most part – it takes advantage of the available mod-cons, bending them to its will for a vision that feels deeper and more rounded than anything its makers have written in years. The quirky pessimism of Wow, I Hate This Song will be capable – if rumours are to be believed – of holding its own onstage with anything a reunited My Chemical Romance might spring, while 1984 (infinite jest) feels like a stunningly high-minded blindside, cheekily heralding ‘the real black parade.’
The dazzling production does, however, occasionally rob compositions of that rough-hewn sense of identity fans have come to know and love, with Bert – once a truly feral presence – sounding almost interchangeable with the likes of Brendon Urie or latter-day Patrick Stump on tracks like Bloody Nose, which should really have ‘The Used’ stamped all over them.
Even a final-third flurry of cameos struggles falls victim to that overproduced anonymity. Featuring blink-182 legend Mark Hoppus, The Lighthouse is a surging, arms-in-the-air earworm with a breezy aesthetic and simple chorus line (‘I can be your lighthouse…’) that’d fit on any Top 40 rundown, but feels throwaway in context. That other blink legend Travis Barker fares slightly better with Obvious Blasé, which packs a little more complexity beneath an equally polished surface. Fortunately, Beartooth frontman Caleb Shomo’s contribution to The Cabaret feels much more convincing, unfolding with the topsy-turvy of some demented cabaret before falling into an utterly cataclysmic breakdown.
That confidence sees us home on a vertiginous high. Darkness Bleeds builds its fiery fist-in-the-air anthem around a marshmallowy bassline, feeling truly original. Then heartbreaking closer To Feel Something dares to be Linkin Park at their most fragile and innovative. ‘I just wanna feel something,’ Bert begs before an avalanche of synths wash us off into a sea of static.
It’s a fitting end to one of the 2020s most sensational returns.
The Used’s new album Heartwork is out now via BIG NOISE/Hassle Records – order your copy here.
An intense, brutally honest conversation with The Used frontman Bert McCracken
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